Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Winchester '73 (1950) at UCLA

Tonight's 35mm double bill at UCLA's Anthony Mann Festival began with the film noir with SIDE STREET (1950) and concluded with a Western released the same year, WINCHESTER '73 (1950).

WINCHESTER '73 is the first film I've watched from my list of 10 Classics to see for the first time in 2014, and I enjoyed it as much as any film from my "classics" viewing lists of the last few years. This was definitely my kind of movie, a superbly made Western starring James Stewart and an outstanding cast. It's a film I'm certain to return to again with some regularity now that I've seen it at last!

WINCHESTER '73 is a sprawling, somewhat episodic story, which begins when Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his pal "High Spade" (Millard Mitchell, THE NAKED SPUR) ride into Dodge City, where Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) keeps law and order. Earp presides over a shooting competition in which Lin and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) compete for the prize of a "perfect" Winchester rifle.

Lin wins the rifle, but Dutch Henry, an old enemy, beats him up and steals it. The film then traces the rifle's meandering path among several different people, with the gun ultimately coming full circle just as Lin approaches his final confrontation with Dutch Henry.

There's a whole lot more to the story, which makes it a challenge to describe concisely while not giving too much away; suffice it to say this is one of those films a first-time viewer should simply let unfold and be surprised. The superior screenplay, which flows beautifully, was by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards, based on a story by Stuart Lake.

Although Lin is a man on a mission who's carrying great sorrow, I didn't find the overall tone of the movie as dark as some of the later Stewart-Mann Westerns I've recently seen, THE NAKED SPUR (1953) and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955). I thought WINCHESTER '73 was closest in feeling to the very next Stewart-Mann Western, BEND OF THE RIVER (1952). BEND OF THE RIVER is one of my favorite '50s Westerns and like WINCHESTER' 73, it was written by Borden Chase.

Both WINCHESTER '73 and BEND OF THE RIVER have huge casts and pack a lot of story into a relatively short running time -- 92 minutes, in the case of WINCHESTER '73. Though there's sadness and death, at heart WINCHESTER '73 ultimately struck me as an optimistic film in the same manner as BEND OF THE RIVER. I think Millard Mitchell's loyal sidekick is responsible for some of that feeling, as his kind character reminds the viewer of the good which coexists with evil, and he provides insight into the type of man Lin is at heart. When Lin says he's "rich" because he has such a friend, it's one of the movie's most touching moments.

The movie has an absolutely superb cast, down to the smallest roles. Stephen McNally has been enjoyed by me in recent months in APACHE DRUMS (1951) and THE STAND AT APACHE RIVER (1953), and he's terrific as Stewart's somewhat mysterious nemesis. Why have they hated each other so much for so long? McNally increasingly strikes me as an underrated actor, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.

Dutch Henry's sidekicks are played by frequent Western baddie Steve Brodie, the star of Mann's DESPERATE (1947), and a Western actor who's become a huge favorite of mine, James Millican, who would go on to appear in Mann's THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955).

I got a big kick out of "Grandpa Walton," Will Geer, as Wyatt Earp, who's supported by Virgil Earp (Guy Wilkerson) and Bat Masterson (Steve Darrell). John McIntire is an Indian trader who haggles with Dutch Henry over the rifle, and the tavern owner during this sequence is played by John Alexander, "Uncle Teddy" of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). When Lin and his buddy end up fighting Indians alongside the cavalry, the sergeant is Mann regular Jay C. Flippen and a young soldier is one Anthony Curtis -- and the Indian chief is Rock Hudson!

Shelley Winters is an actress I frankly find grating in most of her films, and I think her prominent presence in the cast is the main reason I had put off seeing this highly regarded Western for so many years. I must say she does quite well in this movie, restraining her more obnoxious or whiny tendencies and coming off as pleasant and responsible. It was a nice change for me to see her in a film and not be wishing she'd hurry up and get offscreen! Her fiance is played by Charles Drake, who does quite a good job in a role as a man who performs a jaw-droppingly unchivalrous act and then must atone for it.

Like the movie itself, I've saved the best for last. It takes so long for Dan Duryea to make his first appearance in the film that a viewer could easily forget he was in the opening credits, but that simply makes his spectacular entrance all the more enjoyable; surely it's one of the really great character introductions of the movies. Duryea manages to steal every scene he's in, and the moment his character, Waco Johnny Dean, enters the picture it takes the movie up a notch from "very good" to "great."

The cast also includes a young James Best, plus Ray Teal, Abner Biberman, Jimmy and Timmy Hawkins, Bonnie Kay Eddy, and John Doucette. Actor-stuntman Chuck Roberson, described by my husband as "that guy who's in all the John Wayne movies," appears as Long Tom.

I haven't even come yet to another of the movie's greatest assets, the stunning black and white vistas filmed by William H. Daniels. Watching the 35mm print on UCLA's huge screen, I felt at times that I was looking at great paintings which just happened to move. This is a film to see in a theater if at all possible.

WINCHESTER '73 is available on DVD, including as part of sets such as the James Stewart Western Collection. It's also been released on VHS.

It can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

Earlier films seen in this series: DR. BROADWAY (1942), which was paired with the previously reviewed TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE (1945); THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955), shown with the previously reviewed STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944); THE NAKED SPUR (1953), shown with the previously reviewed HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948); THE LAST FRONTIER (1955), seen with the previously reviewed STRANGE IMPERSONATION (1947); RAILROADED! (1947), shown with the previously seen DESPERATE (1947); RAW DEAL (1948), shown with the previously reviewed T-MEN (1947); and SIDE STREET (1950).

April 2019 Update: I had the wonderful opportunity to see the U.S. premiere of the new digital restoration of this film at the TCM Classic Film Festival. I wrote about the festival and the movie itself for Classic Movie Hub.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review,Laura. You've covered everything I love about this movie. Glad you've seen it at last. It is one you return to again and again.

1:00 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

I've been looking forward to seeing your review of "Winchester 73", Laura, ever since you said it was a classic you had never seen. I seem to remember strongly recommending that you catch it.

I first saw it myself on the big screen, also at a retrospective of Anthony Mann, at London's National Film Theatre about 40 years ago.

I love all the Mann/Stewart westerns without exception and this, the first, is as good as any of them for me. A fabulous cast to start with! Stewart, Duryea, McNally....great! I do agree with you about Shelly Winters (whiny is a good word) but I found her very good in this so maybe again it is a case of the director's influence.

So glad you enjoyed it so much - I kinda knew you would though.

Best wishes,

3:40 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

A great movie, and I enjoyed your review.

"McNally increasingly strikes me as an underrated actor..." -- agreed. He had such great screen presence in his films.

Top-notch supporting cast in this one.

4:54 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

How marvelous to have seen "Winchester '73" on the big screen. It wasn't until my third or fourth viewing that all of a sudden the beauty of Daniels' cinematography truly hit me. Trust me on this, "Winchester '73" will never wear out its welcome.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Like Jerry, I love all five Mann/Stewart Westerns. None of them has ever worn out for me over so many viewings, and they are all handily among my top 50 Westerns--if that sounds like faint praise, just try making that list if you are a Western aficionado and you'll quickly realize you are leaving out many movies that you deeply love.

Please put this comment in that context, because it is about your feeling that WINCHESTER '73 is "less dark" than THE NAKED SPUR and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE and more like BEND OF THE RIVER. I do mostly agree with you that it is "optimistic" (and completely agree with this about BEND OF THE RIVER)--that's characteristic of Borden Chase (THE FAR COUNTRY will likely come over this way to you as well) and it is also the tone of most of the movie, both in script and direction. But I wish I did not so readily agree with this as I do, because although the characters all generally get the justice their actions warrant, without giving anything away, what has Stewart's character
actually done by the end of this movie? And I'm less concerned with how we feel about it than the effect it would have on him. So I think there is something very dark here--manifested especially in the kind of symbiotic psychosis of Lin and Dutch Henry when they first encounter each other and reach for guns that aren't there because of Wyatt's "no guns in town" law--one of the genre's and Mann's most famous moments. I think script and direction do acknowledge this in different ways at certain key moments though mostly finesse it. Let me add that what I'm talking about is dramatic and interesting, and seems to have inspired Mann, but it's provocative and I believe bears some thought. By contrast, Stewart's intense, deeply suffering character seems spiritually lost through most of THE NAKED SPUR but the ending is unambiguously tonic for him, while THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is a movie with some genuine tragedy in its story, but again, the note it ends on for Stewart is wholly optimistic, and investing in him as the hero inflects the tragedy around him in a beautiful way.

The word "dark" is used a lot talking about Mann, and those elements are there. I don't think that they are dominant though. I'm not sure I'd regard them as satisfying Westerns if I saw them that way. For me, I respond to them as I do because "dark" elements are poised against "light" elements and overall, it's the light that prevails.

One of the strengths of WINCHESTER '73 is the way characters weave in and out of the narrative and the individual episodes are at times sustained by characters not at the center of the story. If you liked John McIntire as that smooth gambler (and who wouldn't?--he's always great), you'll probably be very pleased with THE FAR COUNTRY because he plays a similar role but is promoted to the main villain. As for Dan Duryea, yes, his entrance alone might be enough to make this movie great; and even though it isn't a long role, he's just so brilliant that if I had to name one favorite Duryea performance (pretty tough) this would be it.

Also, I'm glad you singled out William Daniels' great cinematography. It's too little noted that Daniels worked with Mann about as much as John Alton had earlier, and to no less great effect as Mann's style in the 50s evolved.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

This is why I love joining in with these strands. Blake's superbly thought-provoking and eloquent analysis is wonderful reading. I just wish I had the words......

5:25 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for the comments! I love that people feel so strongly about this wonderful film.

Vienna, I'm glad I hit the high points mentioning the things you like! I'll definitely be watching it again.

Jerry, thanks for your support, so nice of you to be anticipating this review. You were right, I loved it! How fantastic you saw it in London. It would definitely be interesting to have more insight into what made Winters a more pleasant screen presence in this film.

Jacqueline, in a way I'm happy I saw the film now and not earlier because I've really gotten to know so many of the supporting cast, over the last couple of years especially, so this film was like a "greatest hits" of Western faces! I'll be looking for more of McNally's work -- I enjoy when he pops up in small MGM roles in his "Horace" days.

Caftan Woman, those vistas were just stunning. I became so swept up in the film and its beauty that at one point I realized I was so engrossed I'd kind of forgotten I was watching a movie, if that's possible. I was just...there, watching.

Blake, as Jerry says below, you are so eloquent, and I hope you know how much I appreciate it when you take the time to share your thoughts. (And Jerry, you do a terrific job sharing your opinions, you're a great addition to these conversations and always welcome!) You raise such an interesting point -- we both feel the movie is optimistic, but you're right, what Len has to do is something that one would think would mar his psyche and be hard to get past in the future, where in the darker NAKED SPUR he has the chance to release his anger and sadness and will be able to move past it. It's an interesting mixture of problems and tones, and considering that led me to think that the presence of "High Spade" accounts for much of WINCHESTER '73's lighter tone. I also think it has to do with the "justice" you refer to and in particular I appreciated that characters who would have been easy to kill off for dramatic effect...weren't. That was a relief to me.

McIntire is a wonder, so I'm looking forward all the more to THE FAR COUNTRY next weekend. As for WINCHESTER '73, I have the DVD and I think I'm going to put it in when I get a chance and skip to Duryea's entrance, just to take it in again. :)

Thank you all again so much for adding your thoughts. I hope anyone who reads this and hasn't yet caught the movie will check it out on the basis of all these testimonials! A great film.

Best wishes,

1:37 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Yes, I might have added that what you said about the part High Spade plays was very insightful and part of what prompted my own further thoughts. It's surely true that his friendship for Lin has a lot to do with our positive feelings for Lin even through his darker moments in the story; I think we see Lin with him and I guess this always registered but I never thought much about how important it is that he is there and has been riding along with Lin the whole time. And of course, he's the only character who would explain what it's all about as he finally does, so we do understand the whole back story.

In most Mann Westerns it falls especially to the heroine to help us invest in Stewart and believe in his innate moral decency. But here High Spade does this much more than Lola. I think Lola is a good character, and like most everyone else, I like Winters much more than usual in this one. But in her relationship to Lin, the thing that jumps out most is that she is attracted to him because she feels he wouldn't let her down, as presumably every other man always has, and as Steve does in the present course of things.

I followed you in talking around the central thing, and it's tricky to do, but although I'm guessing most here have seen it, if there's someone who hasn't, they deserve not to have it all given away.
For those who know the movie, we all know what we are talking about.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Meant to say also, thanks for your kind comments, Laura, and you too, Jerry.

I also want to say how much I agree about the great cast here. Watching a cast like this, all in one movie, if you love Westerns, the 50s, great Hollywood casting, any of those things, is kind of like being in heaven.

My first experience with it was interesting--I saw it on a 1957 reissue and knew most of these people very well. Charles Drake and John McIntire were probably the most used supporting actors on their Universal-International contracts during the decade (McIntire especially in so many other roles outside the studio too--he plainly had his own non-exclusive deal), so especially had seen them a lot. It was kind of strange seeing Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis though; even though I knew it was an earlier movie for them, I was so used to seeing them as leads at this point, in so many movies--it was kind of fun to see them in these early roles.

The guy I did not know then was Will Geer. Plainly, he would never have been out of work as a character actor if he hadn't been blacklisted soon after this--at least, for him, unlike too many others, he saw complete career renewal after he came back, and being remembered as Grandpa Walton on THE WALTONS--the quintessential example of upbeat Americana of all TV shows--is a nice ironic last laugh on McCarthyism.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Thanks for the kind words, Laura - really appreciated.

The next great movie for you then is "The Far Country" this weekend, I believe? Referring back to "High Spade" and his relationship with the Stewart character, similarly in "The Far Country" (and without giving any spoilers) Stewart's friendship with the old man played by Walter Brennan is equally noteworthy. They fuss, they bicker, all in a warm yet non-sentimental relationship that is at the heart of the movie.

Can't wait to read your "take" on this fine western!

Best wishes,

5:33 AM  

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